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Lords of Desire
By Virginia Henley Sally MacKenzie Victoria Dahl Kristi Astor
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"A dinner invitation from Mad Jack's nephew?" Victoria asked with prim disdain.
"The gentleman's name was Captain John Fuller," Lady Carswell said repressively. "Wherever did you hear such a vulgar sobriquet? Surely not from one of the history books in which you constantly thrust your nose? John Fuller was a Captain in the Sussex Light Infantry and a respected Member of Parliament for four years."
"Yes, Mama." Victoria reluctantly closed her book. Anyone who fritters away a fortune building follies and is buried sitting up wearing a top hat has earned the nickname Mad Jack!
"His wealth came from manufacturing cannon for the Royal Navy."
Undoubtedly a big noise! Victoria hid her amusement.
"His nephew, Sir Peregrine Palmer Fuller, inherited everything."
"Peregrine? The name alone invites ridicule," Victoria declared.
"That is quite enough. Young ladies should be seen and not heard. Your manners are appalling. A far higher standard of gentility is expected from a clergyman's daughter. Since our year's formal mourning period has been over for months, I shall accept the invitation. Obviously the gentleman wishes to form a connection with us because of our reputation for respectability."
Why else would he invite us to dinner? It was obvious he wanted to distance himself from Mad Jack's eccentricity by cultivating the rigidly moral, straitlaced Lady Edwina, widow of the Right Reverend Thomas Carswell, and her spinster daughter.
"I'd rather decline, Mama," Victoria said with daring.
"The dinner is to be held at Bodiam Castle."
"Bodiam?" Victoria gave her mother her full attention. The medieval castle was one of her passions. Constructed in the fourteenth century in the reign of Edward III, one of England's great Plantagenet kings, the magnificent castle on the river had been built to protect the Rother Valley from French raids.
Victoria's interest in Bodiam had been sparked when the main gates were suddenly replaced. That was a decade ago, when she was seven, and though it had lain neglected ever since, she had fallen in love with the romantic, moated castle with its high towers and battlemented ramparts.
"Did Mad Jack ... I beg your pardon, Mama ... did Captain John Fuller own Bodiam Castle?"
"Yes, and now it is owned by his nephew, Sir Peregrine Palmer Fuller. What possible objection could you have?"
"None. None whatsoever." I've longed to go inside Bodiam Castle since I was a child-this is the opportunity of a lifetime!
Victoria appraised her reflection in her cheval glass. Her dark hair was pulled back into a neat bun at her nape and only a tiny white frill around its high neck relieved the plainness of her long-sleeved mauve cambric dress. As she pinned on her jet mourning brooch, she was satisfied that her mother could find no fault with her appearance tonight. She noticed with pleasure that her eyes matched the shade of her gown exactly. Victoria smiled at her reflection and murmured, "Vanity, thy name is woman!"
Downstairs, her brother Edmund stood in the front hall waiting patiently for his mother and sister. He wore his clerical collar and a black suit. He had become the Reverend of the Hawkhurst parish church after his father died, which enabled the Carswells to keep possession of the priory. Victoria suspected her mother had planned it that way by insisting Edmund follow in his father's footsteps, despite the fact that he felt no calling. Edmund's nature was too gentle to go against his mother's wishes, but he was complicit in guarding Victoria's shortcomings and remained silent about his sister's absence from church services in the early morning.
Edwina, garbed in her best bombazine, finally appeared and gave her daughter a thorough inspection. "Tonight, Victoria, do not speak until you are spoken to. You must use a deferential tone and manner, as becomes a young unmarried lady. Remember to be prim and proper at all times and, above all, keep your lashes lowered. It is improper to look directly into a gentleman's face, and it will help conceal the strange color of your eyes."
Edmund held his sister's cloak and squeezed her shoulders to take the sting from their mother's words and comfort her.
Victoria raised her dark lashes to reveal the full impact of her pale violet eyes, then lowered one eyelid in a solemn wink.
Since the Carswells could no longer afford a driver, Edmund drove their carriage the short distance to Bodiam. As they went over the narrow bridge that led across the moat, Victoria saw that the gate moved up and down like a portcullis and she silently thanked Mad Jack for duplicating the original medieval apparatus. She glanced down into the moat and saw water lilies, closed now that it was eventide, and she thrilled at the reflection of the moon upon the water. Mist was floating in from the river, adding to the otherworldly atmosphere that felt timeless. Tonight, the shadows make it look as it did centuries ago.
Lit torches flared in the courtyard, leading the way to the stables and revealing a large grassy quadrangle. This is the castle bailey. A stableman came forward to take care of their horse and carriage and Victoria wished he'd been wearing livery.
A servant met them at the door and led the way through what must have been the Great Hall, then he ushered them into a smaller adjacent chamber furnished as a dining room.
Victoria stared wide-eyed at the high stone walls, the arched timbered ceiling, and the ancient chandelier that held myriad blazing candles. She thought she heard the faint echo of voices and imagined they were sounds floating from the past of people who had inhabited Bodiam over the centuries. I wish it were mine!
The servant took the ladies' cloaks and told them that their host would be with them directly. A uniformed female servant stood unobtrusively against the wall and Victoria noted the fatuous look of approval on her mother's face because the maid had been stationed there in deference to the ladies. Sir Peregrine must revere propriety as much as Mother does.
When their host arrived, Edwina rushed forward to meet him, while her daughter hung back. Victoria had formed a picture of what a man called Peregrine would look like, but all her preconceived notions now shattered into a thousand shards. His presence was compelling; the back of her neck began to prickle. The man was dark, his build powerful, his face strong, and his manner hinted of dominance.
He's at least thirty. He makes Edmund seem like a boy.
"Lady Edwina, I am delighted to make your acquaintance." He took her hand. The quick bow of his head, though polite, was not obsequious.
"Sir Peregrine, this is my son, Reverend Edmund Carswell."
"I'm pleased you could come, Reverend."
"And my daughter, the Honorable Victoria Carswell."
Victoria cringed. Her mother had no right to be addressed as Lady Edwina, nor claim her daughter to be Honorable. Nonetheless, since it added to her consequence, she did so without a blush.
"Mistress Carswell, I welcome you to Bodiam."
Victoria did not offer her hand. With downcast eyes, she sketched a ghost of a curtsy.
"I named my daughter after a royal princess, never dreaming that one day Victoria would become our beloved queen."
"Sherry or port, Lady Edwina?"
"Good heavens, neither. Carswell ladies do not drink wine, but I have no objection to you gentlemen indulging."
Their host poured two glasses of port from a decanter on the sideboard and handed one to Edmund. He raised his own glass and said politely, "To the ladies."
Victoria stood quietly with clasped hands and downcast eyes, while Edwina proceeded to monopolize the conversation. "I see we are your sole guests tonight, Sir Peregrine. It is wise to be selective. Moral rectitude and respectability are desirable qualities not shared by everyone, I fear. You may be assured that I have taught my children the virtues of decency and decorum."
"It is clear you extol convention," he said smoothly.
Edwina took it as a compliment.
He is mocking her! Every instinct told her that Sir Peregrine was the dark figure she had glimpsed atop the high tower. Though Victoria longed to give him a set-down, she remained passive with downcast eyes. She was secure in the knowledge that the plain girl in the prim dress, with her hair in a severe bun, bore no resemblance to the naked nymph in the River Rother.
When they sat down to dinner, their host gallantly held Edwina's chair and Victoria was glad that he apparently found her invisible. She hid her amusement when she tasted the soup and found it was liberally laced with cream and sherry.
"May I inquire what you do for pleasure, Reverend?"
"Tory's passion is history and mine is painting, Sir."
Edwina almost choked on her soup. She pressed her lips together and reprimanded, "Passion is an unsuitable word in mixed company, Edmund, and I prefer you call your sister Victoria. Life is not for pleasure; it is for duty and obedience."
You do not believe that, do you, Tory? Meekness does not sit well with you. I warrant that Tory and passion go hand in hand. When I first walked into the room, I thought there had been a mistake. I was convinced you were not the same female I followed to the priory. Peregrine smiled. Your disguise is clever, quite cunning enough to deceive the venerable Edwina, and artful enough to give you a false sense of security.
"I have always discouraged my son from painting," Edwina confided. "People with artistic natures are invariably unstable. Fortunately, Edmund shows no aptitude."
Victoria's dark lashes flew up. "His paintings of Bodiam Castle are magnificent!" An awkward silence descended and she quickly lowered her lashes.
As the soup plates were removed and the game course placed before his guests, Peregrine sat bemused behind his mask of indifference. Her eyes are the color of pale violets in the snow. All shades of purple denote passion. I know your secrets, Tory! "If you love history, Bodiam must fascinate you. I invite you to come one day and explore the castle."
"Thank you," Victoria murmured. He's using Bodiam as bait. He's fully aware how tempting it is. He wants me to return for a tour so he can control me, but I prefer to see it now!
Tory ate most of her food, then placed her linen napkin on the table. "Please excuse me." She moved her chair back and arose.
Peregrine stood politely and signaled the maid. The uniformed woman curtsied to Victoria and led her from the room. The host resumed his seat and after a moment spoke to Edwina in a confidential manner. "I am most impressed with your daughter, madam. She has a modest, self-effacing demeanor that appeals."
Edwina simpered with pride. "Victoria is a most biddable girl. My insistence upon impeccable behavior has resulted in virtue and chastity, which, though exceedingly rare, are only right and proper in a maiden."
"I would like your permission to pay my addresses to her."
"Sir Peregrine, I would be delighted. You do us great honor."
When Victoria and the maid came to a stone staircase, Tory spoke up firmly. "I prefer to manage on my own, thank you."
"Very good, Miss. I'll just wait here."
Tory ran lightly up the steps, turned, and went down a long passageway that looked neglected. She passed occasional brackets holding rush lights that seemed to illuminate wisps of fog that had crept inside. There were a couple of narrow openings in the stone walls, but the pitch-black rooms beyond held no temptation. Victoria shuddered and then she heard music. Drawn by the sounds of instruments and laughter, she found herself walking along what could only be described as a minstrels' gallery.
She looked down in amazement at a group of people who had obviously gathered for a party. "It's a fancy-dress ball!" The men wore powdered wigs, satin breeches, and brilliantly hued brocaded vests and coats. It was the women, however, who drew Victoria's eye. Their wigs were adorned with jeweled ostrich feathers; their gowns were not only beautiful but also extremely risqué, designed to deliberately display the women's upthrust breasts.
Tory was shocked, yet for one moment she pictured herself in such a glorious gown. The scene below was exactly as it would have been a century ago in Georgian times. As she watched, she realized their behavior was beyond vulgar as they openly flirted and touched each other in inappropriate places.
Her shock slowly turned to anger. "That brute Fuller is throwing a party. His dinner invitation to the Reverend's family is a clever subterfuge to cover up the licentious goings-on at Bodiam. I warrant he cannot wait to be rid of us!"
Her anger made her feel dizzy and she put a hand to her head to steady herself. Victoria turned away from the revelers below and went back the way she had come. She became slightly disoriented and it was a few minutes before she found herself in the familiar passageway that had led her to this part of the castle. Finally, with thudding heart, she located the stone staircase and descended the steps. The maid awaited her as she had promised, and the pair returned to the dining room.
Sir Peregrine and Edmund rose to their feet until she was seated, and Victoria saw they had awaited her return before dessert was served. "I'm so sorry," she murmured.
"Not at all," their host said smoothly.
The dessert was trifle, Victoria's favorite. Perversely, she didn't want any. Without raising her lashes, she spoke to her mother. "I'm afraid I have a dreadful headache." It wasn't a total lie; she did feel strangely light-headed.
Edwina pursed her lips. "Manners, Victoria, manners!"
Manners? Swine have none!
"If Mistress Carswell has a headache, I insist you take her home immediately. I hope we can have dinner again soon."
There, you swine! I knew you'd find a way to be rid of us. Though she had invented the headache so she could leave, she laid the blame squarely at his door.
As Sir Peregrine accompanied them through the neglected Great Hall to the front entrance, he gave his polite attention to Edwina's incessant stream of words. Victoria took the opportunity to study the dark male who towered beside them. She saw that he had a birthmark that slanted down his cheek from ear to chin. He had tried to cover it by growing fashionable sideburn whiskers, but all they did was emphasize his dangerous, rakish look.
Sir Peregrine took Edwina's cloak from the servant and helped her into it. He did not extend the same courtesy to Victoria. A shiver ran down her back when she thought of his hands touching her. She did not know if she felt relief or disappointment.
On the short carriage ride home, Victoria apologized for leaving the room during dinner, but the outrage she expected from her mother did not come.
"Your absence gave Sir Peregrine and I the opportunity to speak freely and come to an understanding," Edwina declared.
"About me?" Tory asked in shocked disbelief.
"We'll speak of it in the morning, when your headache is gone."
Her mother bade her good night and went upstairs, but Victoria waited for Edmund to come from the stable. With a finger to her lips, she beckoned her brother into the parlor.
"When I left the table, what exactly did Mother and Fuller say about me?"
"Our host told Mother he was most impressed with you, and that your modest, self-effacing demeanor appealed to him."
"I did play the part rather well. What did Mother say?"
"She said you were a biddable girl, then told him your virtue and chastity were only right and proper in a maiden."
Tory covered her mouth so her laughter wouldn't bubble out.
"Sir Peregrine asked if he could pay his addresses to you."
Her laughter turned to dismay. "Damnation, I played my part too well!"
"Mother said she would be delighted and honored."
"Hell and Furies! I should never have left the room to go exploring. Still, if I hadn't, I'd never have known the dissolute devil was throwing a party in another part of the castle. The guests wore Georgian costumes and the atmosphere was bawdy."
Her brother looked at her oddly. "Are you sure?"
"I'm not daft, Edmund. I know what I saw. Why do you think he got rid of us so quickly?"
"We left because of your headache."
"I don't have a headache!"
Excerpted from Lords of Desire by Virginia Henley Sally MacKenzie Victoria Dahl Kristi Astor Copyright © 2009 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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